The Impact of Printed Texts on the Lives of Ordinary Men and Women in Sixteenth-Century Europe

Junior (College 3rd year) ・History ・MLA ・9 Sources

Whether directly or indirectly, printed text had a significant effect on the lives of common men and women in sixteenth-century Europe. It altered how knowledge and ideas were disseminated, allowing for and assisting in the development of Europe society in all spheres. The proliferation of printed books and texts outside the control of the church and authorities made it simpler for new ideas to spread, leading to the decentralization of knowledge control.

Nevertheless, it must be taken into account that only a tiny percent of ordinary people was educated and even a smaller percent in case of the female sex. Therefore, the impact was not the same in literate and illiterate people, as oral tradition remained means of transmitting knowledge and values. There was a heterogenic situation when talking about Europe, and the situation changed drastically when talking about a big city or rural areas and so when it comes to a different geographical point, but attempting to focus the main explanation in global terms, some generalizations must be made.

History of Print Media in Europe

The introduction of print media over many decades ago can be viewed as one of the most significant happenings in the history of mankind as it had a great impact on their literacy. In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printing press in Europe. This invention was one of the methods that utilized several different technologies in order to come up with printed materials (Turow 106). Gutenberg was able to produce about 180 copies of the Bible in only three years which was the fastest ever production in Europe at that time. This new innovation enshrined Gutenberg in the history of books.

By 1550, a good number of printing press was established across Europe in most of the countries which helped to increase production of books.

According to Houston (2), there were over 20 million copies of printed books in the beginning of the sixteenth century which increased to about 200 million by the end of the century. A print revolution was experienced by the countries, and people across Europe shifted from handwritten scripts to the new printing press. This revolution was able to transform the lives of ordinary men and women and changed their relationship with authorities, institutions.

Impact of Print Media

The innovation of the movable type of printing press in Europe brought an era of mass communication which according to Febvre et al. (2010, p.14), permanently changed the structure in the society as the individual’s perceptions and ways of looking at things were impacted.

Turow (74) states that there was unrestricted circulation of ideas from reformers and other types of information that moved across the borders in Europe. This newly available information captured the ordinary women and men in the reformation of the political, economic, and religious platforms in their societies. The traditional systems that were dominated by the literate elite were threatened as the ordinary men and women became more literate. In general, there was a cultural, political, economic, and religious awareness across Europe. According to Baten and Zanden (220), the self-awareness led the emerging of middle class and rise of proto-nationalism.

Literacy Among the Ordinary People

Nevertheless, in earlier Europe, there existed inequalities in literacy where ordinary men and women were unable to read and write. Houston (5) states, “The chances of being educated and of acquiring literacy depended on a wide variety of factors in historic Europe: wealth, sex, inheritance laws, projected job opportunities, employments for children and even the language a person spoke”.

Therefore, there was little or no chance for the ordinary people to get educated in the historic Europe. There grew push and pull factors that created revolutions in the intellectual, administrative, religious, and commercial sectors from the start of the sixteenth century that enhanced the access to education. The Catholics and the Protestants were pushing for the ordinary people to become religiously inspired through educational campaigns. On the other hand, ordinary people had a pull from their personal economic and religious needs. This factors led to the creation of more educational institutions as they were in high demand throughout Europe.

The literacy among the common people improved in the seventeenth century as the cost of books dropped significantly. Previously literacy was restricted to the professional, merchant, and landlord classes who formed the middle and upper classes in the society. The lower class was yearning for education, and the lower classes or the common people like the farmers and artisans acquired literacy skills. This slow change in the bottom classes would be the starting point for the seventeenth century expansion of literacy among the common people that were directly influenced by this changes in the XVI century.

Print media also had a positive influence on the educational practices available for the general public. Print media at the time became readily available to all students and it acted as a new visual aid to the learners. Students from the ordinary families could research and write using the print media available to them. They could write scholarly materials using the information they had gathered, comprehended, and made use of a number of sources. As the cost of books dropped, the literacy of the commoners sharply rose.

A New Reading Public

Houston (3) argues that the Gutenberg innovation had an immediate effect on the ordinary citizens across Europe as the cost of books was cut down with the multiplied output from the printing shops. The printing press created a new reading culture among the ordinary people. The cost, time, and labor to produce a book had significantly reduced, and numerous copies could be made effortlessness.

It made books flood the market and improved the readership. Information was made available to the eager ordinary men and women who got access through libraries that were able to store greater quantities of information on their shelves for a larger segment of the population. The libraries also provided access to a variety of information at a cheaper cost to the ordinary citizens. Through the print media, there was a greater preservation and dissemination of knowledge that was important in advance of science and technology. Therefore, the print media created a revolution in information as it initiated the spread of new ideas quickly and with a greater impact.

According to Eisenstein (89), print media helped in the literacy of ordinary women and men who previously were uneducated. The easy access to print media helped bring a new culture of writing and reading in most parts of Europe.

Earlier, reading was restricted to the elite class only, and the ordinary men and women existed in a world that was based on an oral culture. They only listened as knowledge from the print media was transferred orally. However, the print revolution helped the print media reach out to a wider section of people. Print media focused on the ordinary people through published folk tales and ballads that were common and had illustrations with pictures. These materials were then recited and sung at get-togethers in taverns located in towns and villages.

Therefore, print media was conveyed orally and the ordinary people became more literate through the hearing and reading at public gatherings. The distribution of knowledge through the print media contributed to increased literacy among ordinary men and women. Furthermore, the print media improved the education practice as Eisenstein states, Previous relations between masters and disciples were altered. Students who took full advantage of technical texts which served as silent instructors. Young minds provided with updated editions, especially of mathematical texts began to surpass not only their elders but the wisdom of ancients as well.” (p. 689).

Printing and Religion

Print media created the possibility and a channel through which circulation of ideas was possible. Print media introduced a new world of discussions and debates in the villages and towns. At the start of the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church was the dominant religion throughout the economic, political, and religious lives of the European people. Individuals who differed with the established systems of authorities printed materials with their ideas and circulated them throughout Europe.

The authority, wealth, and power of the Catholic Church began to be questioned. The reformers through the print media propagated their message, and they successfully persuaded the ordinary men and women to think differently. They moved them into action against the oppression of the Catholic Church and it had a significant impact in different spheres of life of the ordinary people (Wiesner 365).

Some people did not welcome the print media as they were afraid of it. These individuals worried about the impacts that the easy access to print media and the wide circulation of print materials would have on the minds of people especially the common men and women. It was feared that if there was no control over the print media rebellious and irreligious thoughts could spread throughout Europe and cause a destruction to the valuable literature which was the Bible. Monarchs, writers, artists, and religious authorities were the main critics to the widespread of print media.

In 1517, Martin Luther, a religious reformer, began a journey for change, and he posted a list of ninety-five complaints against the rituals and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. The writings were posted on the door of the church in Wittenberg and soon after, was reproduced in vast numbers and read widely throughout Europe. The ordinary men and women were encouraged to start a revolution against the Church. The Protestant Reformation began and led to a division of the Catholic Church.

Luther also encouraged the common people to become literate and read the Bible. He translated the New Testament which was bought widely within a short period. The print media was significant in the Reformation, and Luther said, ‘Printing is the ultimate gift of God and the greatest one’ as it brought a new intellectual atmosphere and helped in the propagation of Luther’s new ideas. The writings of the religious reformer Luther began a wave of reformation across towns in Europe. There was unrest throughout Europe as the ordinary men and women together joined hands with Luther to end the oppression of the Church.

Culture and Skills Expansion

Studies carried out show that cultural access broadened due to extensive reading. Reading then was viewed as memorizing without practice by the ordinary men and women. Therefore they were less prepared to learn the new writings of the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Reformation.

These writings, therefore, had a narrow impact on the ordinary people. The writing was less widespread than reading amongst the people of the lower social class. The existence of social forms which were dominated by the ordinary women privileged spoken, visual and sung communication. These suggested that their traditional lives were slowly shaped regarding the visual and oral framework. The men benefited from literacy in that they were cultured to take part in the communal domain. Women, on the other hand, were educated on the domestic sphere of life.

Printed texts also had a significant part in the development and acquisitions of skills that were considered valuable in the European culture. Printed texts had contributed to the spread and propagation of literacy among the ordinary people that helped in the growth of human capital in addition to a technological and communicational change.

According to Eisenstein (251), printed text promoted the emergence of skills, competencies, and personalities that were important to succeed in the commercial environment. Furthermore, people gained the ability to understand numbers which were important in ensuring high returns in businesses. The printers available in most parts of Europe utilized the printed texts to produce numerous texts on mathematics that were important in preparing the ordinary men and women to adapt to the business environment and other high profile careers. The know-how on coming up with solutions to problems and quantitative skills were easily and safely transmitted through generations. The ordinary people developed the skills and knowledge to determine profits in their businesses, calculate interest, currency exchanges, and determine the correct payments for goods and services that they offered.

Scientific Revolution

Bairoch and Braider (499) stated that the printed texts were a major influence towards the establishment of a network of scientists. In the past, scientists operated in isolation and they had restricted means of sharing information. They through the printed texts were able to publish and easily circulate their works to a large audience and also share their discoveries with other scholars which accelerated the rate discoveries and progress made by the scientists.

The reformation of the church authorities in combination with the printed media created a suitable atmosphere for the scientists to share their research work comfortably. Scientists across all fields such as medicine, mathematics, psychology, and space science were carrying out research studies, formulating theories, and making discoveries which they published the results obtained. Natural philosophies that were in place for a long time were now replaced by the study of biological and chemical sciences.

Bairoch and Braider (322) write that the advances that were made directly impacted the quality of life for many individuals. A significant number of the ordinary men and women had assessed to improved medicine in addition to advancements in technology employed in agricultural, transportation, and domestic areas. The birth of these scientific revolutions can be attributed to the spread of printed texts from several scientists such as Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Nicolaus Copernicus.

The arrival of the printing press and the printed texts a channel through which knowledge was recorded, preserved, and reproduced. The information was also produced with consistency, speed, and accuracy. The scientists were able to embrace the innovations and research works of other scientists and make more improvements. The growing number of printed texts became available to the ordinary man and women and they became interested in the new features in the sciences. In the onset of the 1600's, there was a scientific revolution that changed the view of the universe in most parts of Europe (Dittmar 1134).

Communications Revolution

The explosion of the printed texts brought a high demand for the materials. There was a need to translate the present materials into languages that would easily enhance communication. Books outside the cultures and the languages of the European people were translated which encouraged changes in the cultures such as communication. The printed text and the translations impacted the European cultures by facilitating revolutions in their communications. This revolution changed the thoughts of the ordinary people and their social interaction. The already translated printed texts together with the spoken language can be regarded as one of the key historical shifts in the communication sector that have created an intellectual and social transformation. In the past, the people used oral culture to pass important information from one generation to the next but the printed texts facilitated the interpretation, reflection, and processing of the ideas. Printed texts allowed people to record the history that could persist through centuries. The printed texts generally brought a variation of the oral communication tradition.

Business Practice

Print texts are associated with the adoption and spread of the best business practice as they played a key role in the development of skills and knowledge. According to Febvre et al. (66), business texts were printed containing descriptions of double-entry book-keeping. This skill and know-how were regarded as a technological innovation that assisted in the business practice by providing guidance to the people. In addition, the print texts were important in ensuring the development of cross-cultural communication that helped people to engage successfully in a trade with people from diverse cultures.

Other printed texts contained simplified calculations that the people could use to calculate business related calculations such as interest on loans. Printers were located in cities which brought craftsmen, merchants, artisans, farmers, and scholars together. The pre-existing social divides were eroded as a majority of the people were becoming learned and they opted for new opportunities in the print cities to become authors, booksellers, and students. The printed texts changed the labor structure of Europe, with printers, proofreaders, and layout artists becoming a new occupation, as well as the rise of the book industry and libraries.

By the nineteenth century, there was a mass education in Europe that saw a huge number of readers among the men, women, and children of the lower class. Cities were greatly transformed as the ordinary people got a desire to improve their social status to meet the transformations in the cities (Wiesner 353). Women became readers and writers, and they could read and write manuals that taught proper behavior in accordance to the cultures such as housekeeping. However, some of the cultures and practices gathered were edited before they were published which changed the cultures of the people.


The print media impacted the lives of common people all across Europe as it brought a number of reforms in the society. Print media in the sixteenth century provided an opportunity to circulate ideas as it introduced a new platform for discussions and debates. The Bible was the first printed text, and it had an impact on the people as it created a personal meditation with God, unlike the previous sermons that were only conducted by the Catholic Church. The personal meditation and the different interpretations of the Bible led to separation from the main Roman Catholic Church.

The European civilization also commenced as there was a wide sharing of scientific research work throughout most parts of Europe. The general education also grew up at a steady rate that led to the medieval man turning into the modern man. The ordinary people had become aware of their rights and they ready worked together to end the oppression by the authorities. The discontentment of the common people brought rebellions against the established systems and their grievances coupled with the new ideas created revolutions throughout Europe. The printed texts created a more informed and more united people. By the end of the nineteenth century, literacy had become a central part of the society, and the children were expected to be enrolled in the process of education.

Works Cited

Baten, Joerg, and Zanden J. L. van. "Book Production and the Onset of Modern Economic Growth." Journal of Economic Growth, vol. 13, no. 3, 2008, pp. 217-235. Print.

Bairoch, Paul, and Christopher Braider. Cities and Economic Development from the Dawn of History to the Present. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2010. Print.

Dittmar, Jeremiah E. "Information Technology and Economic Change: the Impact of the Printing Press." The Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 126, no. 3, 2011, pp. 1133-1172. Print.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009. Print.

Febvre, Lucien, Henri-Jean, Martin, Gerard, David E., Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, and Wootton, David. The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800. London: Verso, 2010. Print.

Hillerbrand, Hans J. The Protestant Reformation. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009. Print.

Houston, Robert Arnold. Literacy in Early Modern Europe: Culture and Education, 1500-1800. London; New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Turow, John. Media Today an Introduction to Mass Communication. New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2012. Print.

Wiesner, Merry E. The Renaissance and Reformation: A History in Documents. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.

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